WASHINGTON — There comes a point in the unspooling of every complex political-financial-legal scandal when the story becomes so complicated that it’s easy to lose the thread of what matters. The facts dribble out, in ever more confusing increments. The lengthy cast of characters resembles a Russian novel. Competing news demands our attention.
That is where we are now when it comes to the investigation of President Trump and Russia. Harvey deluged the Gulf Coast, drowning out the news about Trump’s involvement with Russia. Still, that news is, or should be, huge. The latest revelations feel, at least for now, like more of a political bombshell than a legal problem, but the two are closely related; consider how many public officials have landed themselves in legal jeopardy trying to save their political hides.
Still, that news is, or should be, huge. The latest revelations feel, at least for now, like more of a political bombshell than a legal problem, but the two are closely related; consider how many public officials have landed themselves in legal jeopardy trying to save their political hides.
To recap, what we know now that we did not know a week ago:
While he ran for president, Trump was simultaneously — and secretly — pursuing financial opportunities with a foreign adversary. Not just any adversary, but Russia, a country described by his party’s previous presidential nominee as the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” And not just pursuing financial opportunities in Russia, but actively seeking the help of at least one senior Russian official to gain government approval for the project.
Once again: This is not OK. When you run for president, you cannot — you should not — put yourself in the position of using that candidacy as a door-opening business opportunity. You cannot — even if the prospect of winning seems remote — put yourself in a position of being financially beholden to a hostile foreign power.
Trump Tower Moscow was not another instance of Trump as unabashed cross-promoter-in-chief, like using the campaign press corps to help tout the reopening of his Scottish golf course. It represented something much more disturbing, even unpatriotic.
It was possible, when The Washington Post first broke the news of the failed deal, to discount the proposal as braggadocio from Felix Sater, the Russian-born real estate developer pushing the deal.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater emailed Trump Organization executive vice president Michael Cohen, detailed by The New York Times.
But as it turned out, this was more than Sater freelancing in Trump’s name. The Post next reported that Cohen emailed Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016 in a bid to save the languishing deal; that Cohen discussed the project with Trump on three occasions; and that the effort was dropped when Russian government permission was unforthcoming.
The Trump Organization not only pursued this opportunity in secret, it — indeed, Trump himself — actively misled the public. Imagine how much more sharply people would have responded to Trump’s already repulsive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during that time — “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country” — if they knew that Trump had just signed a letter of intent with a Russian firm to develop a Trump-branded tower in Moscow.
And as the question of Trump’s Russian connections became increasingly controversial, he somehow omitted the just-abandoned deal. “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia,” he tweeted in July 2016. This past January, as Trump prepared to take office, he reiterated, “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” Shades of Bill Clinton — it depends on what the meaning of “have” is.
As recently as his interview this summer with The New York Times, Trump disingenuously downplayed his financial interests in Russia. “I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? …They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one.” Including the one he was pursuing while running for president, but failed to mention.
We have become inured to Trumpian self-dealing, from doubling membership fees at Mar-a-Lago to profiting off his government-owned D.C. hotel. This one goes beyond pure greed. It edges into serious questions about whether Trump’s positions on Putin and Russia have been and remain tainted by considerations not of what is best for the nation but what benefits Trump’s bottom line.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.